While for many the observance of Christmas this year is in the rearview mirror, for those who celebrate the holiday according to the Julian Calendar are currently in the midst of their celebration.
For Ukrainian people Christmas is the most important family holiday of the whole year. It is celebrated solemnly, as well as merrily, according to ancient customs that have come down through the ages and are still observed today.
Ukrainian Christmas festivities begin on Christmas Eve, Jan.6, and end on the Feast of the Epiphany, on Jan. 19.
Ukrainian Christmas customs are based not only on Christian traditions, but to a great degree on those of the pre-Christian, pagan culture and religion. The Ukrainian society was basically agrarian at that time and had developed an appropriate pagan culture, elements of which have survived to this day.
Christianity was introduced into Ukraine in 988 A.D. The flourishing pagan religion and traditions associated with it were too deeply rooted in the people to allow the Church to eradicate them completely. Therefore, the Church adopted a policy of tolerance toward most of the ancient customs and accepted many as part of the Christian holidays. In this way, the ancient pagan Feasts of Winter Solstice, Feasts of Fertility became part of Christian Christmas customs. This is perhaps why Ukrainian Christmas customs are quite unique and deeply symbolic.
The Christmas Eve Supper or Sviata Vecheria (Holy Supper) brings the family together to partake in special foods and begin the holiday with many customs and traditions, which reach back to antiquity. The rituals of the Christmas Eve are dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family, and to the remembrance of the ancestors.
With the appearance of the first star which is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem, the family gathers to begin supper.
The table is covered with two tablecloths, one for the ancestors of the family, the second for the living members. In pagan times ancestors were considered to be benevolent spirits, who, when properly respected, brought good fortune to the living family members. Under the table, as well as under the tablecloths some hay is spread to remember that Christ was born in a manger. The table always has one extra place-setting for the deceased family members, whose souls, according to belief, come on Christmas Eve and partake of the food.
A kolach (Christmas bread) is placed in the center of the table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Trinity and the circular form represents Eternity.
A didukh (meaning grandfather) is a sheaf of wheat stalks or made of mixed grain stalks. It is placed under the icons in the house. In Ukraine, this is a very important Christmas tradition, because the stalks of grain symbolize all the ancestors of the family, and it is believed that their spirits reside in it during the holidays.
After the didukh is positioned in the place of honour, the father or head of the household places a bowl of kutia (boiled wheat mixed with poppy seeds and honey) next to it. Kutia is the most important food of the entire Christmas Eve Supper, and is also called God’s Food. A jug of uzvar (stewed fruits, which should contain twelve different fruits) and is called God’s Drink, is also served.
After all the preparations have been completed, the father offers each member of the family a piece of bread dipped in honey, which had been previously blessed in church. He then leads the family in prayer. After the prayer the father extends his best wishes to everyone with the greeting Khrystos Razhdaietsia (Christ is born), and the family sits down to a 12-course meatless Christmas Eve supper.
There are 12 courses in the supper, because according to the Christian tradition each course is dedicated to one of Christ’s Apostles. According to the ancient pagan belief, each course stood was for every full moon during the course of the year. The courses are meatless because there is a period of fasting required by the Church until Christmas Day. However, for the pagans the meatless dishes were a form of bloodless sacrifice to the gods.
The first course is always kutia. It is the main dish of the whole supper. Then comes borshch (beet soup) with vushka (boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions). This is followed by a variety of fish - baked, broiled, fried, cold in aspic, fish balls, marinated herring and so on. Then come varenyky (boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes. There are also holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and the supper ends with uzvar.
While many of the Ukrainian Christmas Eve customs are of a solemn nature, the custom of caroling is joyful and merry. Ukrainian Christmas songs or carols have their origins in antiquity, as do many other traditions practiced at Christmas time. There are two main groups of Christmas songs in Ukraine - the koliadky, whose name is probably derived from the Latin “calendae” meaning the first day of the month and which are sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the second group of Christmas songs is called shchedrivky, which is a derivation from the word meaning generous. The latter are sung during the Feast of the Epiphany.
Both koliadky and shchedrivky have pagan elements in them, but many have been Christianized. For example, one pagan carol tells of a landowner who is awakened by a swallow and told to make preparations, because three guests are coming to his house: the sun, the moon and the rain. In the Christianized version the three guests become Jesus Christ, St. Nicholas and St. George. The very popular Ukrainian carol in the United states, “Carol of the Bells”, in its originality is a shchedrivka and tells of a swallow (herald of spring) that has come to a landowner’s house and asks him to come out and see how rich he is, how many calves he has, and so on.
The themes of Ukrainian Christmas songs vary. Many, of course, deal with the birth of Christ and that occasion’s joyful celebrations, and many of them have apocryphal elements. Another group of carols contain purely pagan mythological elements. Still another group deals with Ukrainian history of the 9th to 12th centuries, mostly with the heroic episodes in the lives of some of the princes that were favourite among the people. One of the largest groups of carols are glorification songs - glorifying the landowner, the farmer, his wife, his sons, his daughters, every member of the family. These songs glorify their work, as well as their personal traits.
Caroling required extensive preparation. Each group had a leader. One member dressed as a goat. Another as a bag carrier, the collector of all the gifts people would give them. Yet another carried a six-pointed star attached to a long stick with a light in its center, which symbolized the Star of Bethlehem. In some places the people even had musical instruments, such as the violin, tsymbaly (dulcimer), or the trembita (a wooden pipe about eight-to-10 feet long, used in the Carpathian mountains by the Hutsuls).
Caroling was not a simple singing of Christmas songs; it was more of a folk opera. The carolers first had to ask for permission to sing. If the answer was yes, they entered the house and sang carols for each member of the family, even for the smallest child. Sometimes they even performed slow ritualistic dances. They also had to present a short humorous skit involving the goat. The custom of the goat accompanying the carolers has its origin in the pagan times when the goat represented the god of fertility. The skit showed the goat dying and then being brought back to life. This also symbolized the death of winter and the birth of spring. The caroling always ended with short well-wishing poems, appropriately selected for each home.
Koliadky and shchedrivky are the oldest groups of Ukrainian folk songs. They are sung by Ukrainians at Christmas time throughout the world.
Schedriy Vechir, or the Eve of Epiphany, on Jan. 18 according to the Gregorian Calendar is the “Second Holy Evening.” The meal is similar to the one served on Christmas Eve. After the evening meal, carols and songs expressing good wishes for the New Year, are sung. The Christmas tree would be taken down.
Epiphany is the final day of the Christmas season. It commemorates the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by St. John the Baptist. On this day, it is the custom to bless water. The ceremony was usually held by a river, or now in modern times a vessel of water. Each family takes some of the holy water home.
After Epiphany the priest visits the homes of his parishioners and blesses their homes with holy water.